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What Trump gets dangerously wrong about the wildfires

Posted at 6:09 PM, Aug 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-07 20:09:32-04

Right now, 100 fires are burning across the West, including the Mendocino Complex fire in California — the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Thousands of firefighters and support personnel are working tirelessly to protect life and property. As the number of acres burned continues to climb, it’s clear that wildfires are now a year-round threat that cannot be ignored. Families have lost loved ones, homes and businesses — and many are still under evacuation orders with no idea what will await them when they return.

Yet in many important ways President Donald Trump has shown little concern for communities in harm’s way — instead opting to spend his time spreading misinformation about the cause of the wildlife. Though Trump approved a welcome disaster declaration over the weekend, his claim that firefighters don’t have enough water to extinguish the fires in California is both blatantly false and unhelpful in relief efforts.

But perhaps more dangerous than his falsehood is his conflation of two separate issues: water management and wildfires. Such a statement ignores that climate change is the real reason wildfire season has been so intense. Climate change exacerbates wildfires by creating warmer and drier conditions, which in turn lead to longer fire seasons. Getting the cause wrong prevents real risk analysis and points to ineffective solutions.

Time and again, we’ve seen Trump deny the obvious. He promises he will bring “clean, beautiful coal” back, despite clear economic evidence to the contrary. He proclaims his support for clean air and water, as his administration works overtime trying to dismantle safeguards for the air we breathe and the water we drink. He promises to remember those who have been forgotten, despite repeated proposals that would put the most vulnerable — families living near sources of pollution — at greatest risk.

And he refuses to accept climate change, despite compelling scientific evidence and its highly visible on-the-ground effects in the changing nature of, for example, wildfires. His consistent failure to see the fire for the smoke has real-life implications for the millions of people across the country who live in communities that could potentially be threatened by enormous blazes.

Unfortunately, a changing climate has increased the risk of more frequent and more intense fires. Fire season today is 20% longer than it was 35 years ago as a result of rising global temperatures, and we can expect fire areas to expand to cover even more of the United States in the near future. Failure to follow a rational forest management will put us in peril.

Science has shown that one way to lessen the risk of huge, out-of-control fires is actually to allow regular natural fires, or purposeful controlled burns, set intentionally to improve forest health. And there it is, the key word: science. Fire and forest management must be based on sound science and adapt with changing conditions and findings — rather than clinging to ineffective practices of the past. Fires, even large ones, have always been a part of nature. They play an important role in keeping forests healthy.

Healthy forests are also one of our best defenses against climate change. While logging them out of existence might profit a few corporate timber producers, it won’t save our communities. Of course, we need to be fire smart. Trees threatening public safety, roads and homes should be removed.

“Fuel breaks,” which control the spread of fire, should be established near communities, and there should be adequate defensible space around structures. Many at-risk structures can be saved if they are properly designed and maintained to withstand fire.

All those steps, however, have little to do with industrial logging and tree plantations, which fail to provide the benefits of a natural forest and can actually increase the probability of large, uncharacteristic fires.

The scientific consensus today, reinforced by the terrible fires across the country, is that our climate is already changing. In response, we must focus on adequately funding firefighting and management efforts, direct fire-prevention dollars to areas where people live and work, and create fire-smart communities.

The long-term safety of the more than 40 million homes in wildfire-prone areas, however, will depend on how effectively we address the atmospheric pollution that is driving global warming. That means building cleaner cars, halting dirty fuel development on public lands and moving our industries away from ones that create pollution — like coal-fired power plants and inefficient cars — all of which Trump is actively working against.

It’s up to all of us to ensure that Trump’s spurious calls for water don’t distract us from the real solutions that are within our reach.